New Delhi: When June Almeida, then aged around 34, first claimed to have spotted a new kind of virus in 1964, it was rejected by a peer-reviewed journal, the story goes.
The images she had captured, of a virus surrounded by what appeared to be a halo or a crown, were dismissed by the referees as “just bad pictures of influenza virus particles”. However, little did they know that the virus they were looking at would wreak havoc on the world just over 50 years down the line.
Almeida, a Scottish virologist, is credited with discovering the first human coronavirus — a family whose members include the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus at the centre of the current Covid-19 pandemic.
With the intensity of the Covid-19 onslaught stoking global curiosity around the coronavirus, the discovery made by Almeida, a pioneer of her field, is back in the limelight.
Almeida was born June Hart on 5 October 1930 in Glasgow, where she grew up in one of the tenements — apartment blocks — that form a distinctive feature of the urban Scottish landscape.
Th daughter of a bus driver, Almeida had to leave school at the age of 16 despite being a stellar student because she could not afford higher education. She subsequently took up a job as a laboratory technician at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary.
She got married to a Venezuelan artist and the couple moved to Canada, where she began to work as an electron microscopy technician at the Ontario Cancer Institute in Toronto.
According to a 2008 posthumous profile of Almeida, it was easier at the time to gain scientific recognition without a university degree in Canada than in Britain. Despite having no formal qualifications, she soon co-authored a number of scientific publications, mostly describing the structure of viruses that had not been visualised before. Almeida moved back to London in 1964 to work at St Thomas’ Hospital Medical School.
Almeida is remembered as an early pioneer of a simple technique of immune electron microscopy that made it possible for scientists to see viruses. This method involved mixing virus preparations with antibodies raised in animals or from human sources. The antibodies helped aggregate the viruses, which then became visible under the electron microscope.
Following her return to the UK, she collaborated with DAJ Tyrrell, who is credited with developing a new technique of organ cultures. Tyrrell was at the time the director of UK’s erstwhile Common Cold Research Centre, a medical facility dedicated to common cold research that was formed after the World War II.
Speaking to the BBC, medical writer George Winter described how Tyrrell’s research and Almeida’s imaging skills helped discover the coronavirus.
In the 1960s, Tyrrell had been studying nasal washings from volunteers, and found that they were unable to grow some of the common cold-associated viruses in the lab, Winter said.
One sample in particular, known as B814, obtained from the nasal washings of a pupil at a Surrey boarding school in 1960, could not be grown in routine cell culture. Tyrrell managed to grow the virus in organ cultures and sent samples to Almeida, asking if these could be seen through the electron microscopes.
Not only did Almeida manage to produce images of these viruses, she also identified what became known as the first human coronavirus. Tyrrell and Almeida, along with Tony Waterson — who was in charge at St Thomas’ — named it coronavirus because of the rounded crown-like projections surrounding it.
As stated above, the findings were initially rejected. The discovery was eventually described in the British Medical Journal in 1965 and the first photographs of what Almeida had seen were published in the Journal of General Virology two years later.
Almeida’s method also helped identify common cold viruses, which could not be cultivated conventionally.
Using immune electron microscopy, she also found that there are two distinct components to the hepatitis B virus, one on the surface and one inside. This helped the scientific community understand that antibodies to the surface component had a protective effect against infection, an understanding that helped develop a vaccine for the disease.
By the 1970s, her publications had been awarded with a Doctor of Science (D.Sc).
Almeida is credited with teaching the technique of immune electron microscopy to Dr A.Z. Kapikian of the US government’s National Institutes of Health, who used it to identify the Norovirus, which causes outbreaks of ‘winter vomiting disease’.
In 1979, she co-authored a manual for rapid laboratory viral diagnosis for the World Health Organisation. Today, most virology review articles and textbooks contain her electron micrographs of viruses.
Yoga instructor in retirement
In 1985, Almeida retired to the English seaside town of Bexhill, where she became a successful yoga instructor. She trained in china restoration and also dabbled in antique trading with her second husband, Phillip Gardner, who was also a retired virologist.
In the late 1980s, however, she returned to St Thomas’ in an advisory role, publishing with colleagues some of the first high-quality negative staining electron micrographs of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
Almeida died of a heart attack in 2007, at the age of 77.
An earlier version of this report carried an image of renowned NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson, who was identified as Almeida. The error is regretted.